The Chénier affair:

Debate or Intimidation inside the Revolutionary Milieu ?

At several points we have faced questions concerning the political evolution of Internationalist Perspective. Certain comrades regret the length of time it has taken us to detach ourselves from the logic of the International Communist Current (ICC). Others think that certain positions have not yet been sufficiently thrashed out. The ongoing debate on the concept of decadence, to which we return in this number of IP, is an illustration of these preoccupations. However, it is another question which we want to address in the present article, a question about which we have yet to write in these pages, but one which at the time jolted the revolutionary milieu; what the ICC termed "the Chénier affair:" the expulsion, in 1981, of a number of comrades who had constituted a tendency within the ICC.

Why review now a problem which seems so minor in comparison with more fundamental questions such as the development of the crisis of capitalism, the historic perpectives facing humankind, or the obstacles in the way of a renewal of proletarian combativity? First, because certain elements in the revolutionary milieu continue to be affected by that unhappy episode. Second, because it poses a two-fold, but fundamental, question: that of the functioning of the revolutionary organization, and the manner in which political debates are carried out within the working class. While it is not a new question that is at issue here, nor even a fundamental advance in our understanding of the rapport de force between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the present mistakes of certain political groups compels us to sharpen our understanding of these questions. The multiplication of personal attacks, vilification, and lies directed at militants that we have recently seen on the part of the ICC in particular, is inscribed in a political logic that we reject: that of monolithic, totalitarian thinking, which does not hesitate to use violent actions to get its own way. It is a matter here of a successor to the old Stalinist practice, which utilized any means possible to destroy a political opponent and to impose the momentary "truth" of the party.

In 1981, following ever greater difficulties in carrying on a debate within the ICC, the "Chénier tendency" (named for its principal figure) left the organization, taking with it material belonging to the ICC. This was characterized by many as theft, an action which jeopardized the organization, and necessitated a firm and resolute reaction on its part. An operation to recuperate the materials in question was decided upon by the ICC, in the name of the material defense of the revolutionary organization against the manipulation of elements designated as trouble-makers. At the time, certain of us, holding positions within the International Bureau of the ICC, supported that operation. Those comrades succumbed to the organizational logic developed by the ICC, which virtually no one fundamentally contested at the time.

Today, we reject and condemn that kind of operation. It is important to grasp the errors of the past, and to understand why -- though the platform of the ICC was seen by us at the time as a synthesis of the traditions of the Dutch and Italian Left -- we defended the Leninist concept of "the defense of the organization," and exemplary action to intimidate possible future deviationists. Three points seem crucial here.

1) Right off the bat, there is a need to raise questions about the gravity of the facts at issue. Did the material taken by the comrades of the "Chénier tendency," and their unpaid dues, really put the ICC in danger? Certainly not! By contrast, the debate provoked by this tendency, over the validity of the theses on the left in opposition defended by the majority of the ICC, was diverted to the benefit of a campaign of vilification against the tendency. The questions that had been raised by the tendency were quashed. The critique made by the Chénier tendency focused on the issue of a decisive confrontation between the classes in the 1980's, which the majority insisted necessitated that the bourgeoisie put the left in opposition in order to head off the proletariat. It is true that the electoral victory of the French left seriously undermined the analysis of the majority, such that that analysis was transformed into a kind of ideology, forcing comrades to interpret events in terms of the political line already adopted, whereas Marxism is conceived as a theorization of the real movement, wielding the conceptual tools forged by the historic experience of the working class. We then shared the thesis of the left in opposition, which, following a discussion on the renewal of working class combativity, we have since rejected.

2) The actual political debate in 1981 was obscured by the campaign of vilification, as well as by the interpretation of the statutes of the organization. These latter foresaw giving ample scope for internal debates, and for providing the means for them to flourish within the organization. But, they also were predicated on the need to bring such debates to a conclusion, so as to permit the organization to act, and to speak with a single voice. It is this last point which was interpreted as necessitating the closure of debate so as to further the organization's intervention within the working class. With that in mind, one can better grasp how the ICC treated its minorities and their divergences, when they sought the protection of the organization's own statutes and established organized tendencies within it. The ICC demonstrated it incapacity to tolerate a real debate, to live with divergences, instead, imposing a single line of "correct" thinking. This was a crucial factor in the degeneration of the organization: the incapacity to tolerate and carry on a debate sooner or later must lead to authoritarian reactions, even to the use of violence, to impose correct thinking -- first in the name of efficacy, then in the name of "truth."

3) Was it necessary to mount a paramilitary operation to forcibly recuperate the material that the organization had lost? That raises the question of the use of force within the working class. Historically, violence appears on the one hand as an essential instrument for the perpetuation of class society, and on the other hand as the midwife of the new society which emerges from the old. The practice of the working class throughout its history points up the specific features of proletarian violence, a collective violence directly exercised by the class itself, not through specialized organs. Proletarian violence is opposed to an action based on the separation between the working class and a stratum of "specialists," who are charged with the power to use violence in its name.

The above features demonstrate both the absurdity of a systematic condemnation of all violence as well as its unilateral exhaltation. Moreover, the mystique of exemplary action is merely an idealist conception according to which the action of the class is not determined by objective conditions, by its own internal maturation, but by sheer acts of will, the exhaltation of which leads straight to megalomania. At the time of its operation to recuperate its material, the ICC manifested itself in the form of an armed band, the embryo of a police state, against a part of the class, with which it refused any debate. We condemn physical violence directed at revolutionary militants. For us, the life of the proletarian milieu requires polemic and discussion, confrontation and questioning, excluding any kind of intimidation. Debate can only be resolved by the analysis of the political reality itself, and not by any recourse to authority or to the physical force of one of the protagonists. It is crucial here to reaffirm the lessons of Kronstadt 1921, condemning the use of force against elements of the working class.

The "Chénier affair" was not the sign of the bureaucratic dysfunctionality of the ICC, as the comrades of the ex-CBG claim, but rather the manifestation of a Leninist conception of the organization -- a conception that we reject. That raises an important question which we have not yet had the opportunity to address in a thoroughgoing fashion in IP: what kind of organization do we want?

Aa a product of the struggle of the proletariat against capitalist exploitation and private property, a communist group expresses the imperious necessity for resistance to the established order, by participating in the process through which class consciousness arises within the working class, and by denouncing the reigning ideological mystifications. Such a group does not incarnate class consciousness. It constitutes a moment in a global dynamic which proceeds through the confrontation of ideas, experiences, and theorizations. It does not represent any kind of physical force, but rather is an intellectual force. It is crucial to recognize the primacy of this discursive function in the elaboration of proletarian theorization, which entails the multiplication of possibilities for discussion, confrontation, and a particular openness to opposing positions within the organization. The organization constitutes a pole of theoretical reference that must be defended, not as an end in itself, but as a framework for the necessary analyses. Within the organization one principle is primordial: it is necessary to accentuate the possibility of discussion, confrontation, theoretical elaboration. It is crucial to permit the expression of minority views, questioning, and groping for answers. The internal life of the organization must be based on solidarity, respect for the other, openness to discussion and confrontation. Outside the organization, the very movement of theoretical elaboration depends on the possibility of contradictory analyses within the working class, and the necessary participation of revolutionaries in those debates. Discussions, meetings, conferences, are the moments through which this process of theoretical development manifests itself, in which the contradictory life of the class is expressed, and in which communist groups represent only one element among others -- though one geared towards a formulation and globalization of the positions arrived at by this complex process. Such debates will have their echo in the publications created by such communist groups.

As a globalizing analysis can only arise from a confrontation of divergent positions, it is vital to facilitate the expression of divergences through the very organization of debate within the class. This entails the appearance and discussion of different positions which seek to grasp social and political reality. It is clear that denunciation as a weapon in debate is unacceptable, and a manifestation of intellectual confusion and weakness to boot. The quest for a real understanding of the world, for a clear interpretation of events, can only arise from a process of confrontation, from open, and --yes -- contradictory readings of reality.


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